Broadcaster Cristina Saralegui

Named by Time as one of the “25 Most Influential Hispanics in America,” Saralegui reflects on finding passions and realizing dreams.

Hailed as the queen of Latin media, Cristina Saralegui is the former host and exec producer of a multiple Emmy-winning talk show, which had a 21-year run, and one of America's most influential Hispanics. She was born in Havana and introduced to journalism by her grandfather—a magazine publisher known in Latin America as "The Paper Czar." Following the Cuban Revolution, her family fled to South Florida, where Saralegui was raised and attended college. After graduation, she began working for magazines, becoming editor of the Spanish language version of Cosmopolitan before transferring her journalistic success to TV. She shares personal, hard-won lessons in her memoir, Rise Up and Shine!


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Cristina Saralegui named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential Hispanics in all of America. Her new book, “Rise Up and Shine!: My Secrets for Success in Career, Relationships and Life,” is now out.

This Cuban-born broadcaster was the host and executive producer of “The Cristina Show” on the Univision Network. The show won 12 Emmys over its 21-year run.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Cristina Saralegui coming up right now.

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Tavis: For more than 21 years, Cristina Saralegui was the executive producer and host of the hugely influential series, “The Cristina Show” on the Univision Network. The show earned 12 Emmys and became a ratings powerhouse.

Now Cristina has written a new memoir titled “Rise Up and Shine!: My Secrets for Success in Career, Relationships and Life.” Cristina, an honor to have you on this program.

Cristina Saralegui: Thank you, sir. It’s an honor to be here.

Tavis: There’s so much to talk to you about. Let me start with something that I’m passionate about.

Saralegui: Okay.

Tavis: And sometimes when you host your own show, you can talk about what you want to talk about. I’ve always been so impressed by the fact that, for most of these 21 years when you were hosting your show, you owned and controlled everything. Now we know that Oprah is the quintessential example of what it means to own your own content.

I’ve been fortunate here at PBS to do the same thing myself. I own it, PBS distributes it. I own my radio show, PBS distributes it. I publish my own books. I mean, that’s important to me now. It wasn’t when I first started, but it is now. But you’re a woman and…

Saralegui: A Latina.

Tavis: Exactly. I was about to say all that. How did you pull that off?

Saralegui: Well, I figured when I went to sign my first contract that, if I did not put it in the contract – it said a lot of talent, talent. I come from print journalism and I asked the lawyer, “What is talent?” And he goes, “It’s the person in front of the camera.” And “Who is the boss?” He goes, “The executive producer.” I said, “Erase all those talents and put executive producer. Let’s start there.”

And then in the contract, my husband and I had the wherewithal to actually put that we wanted to control all aspects of the program, not just the content, but when it aired, who we interviewed. Because, you know, your network can tell you all of a sudden, no, no, no, no. We are in a fight with that person over advertising or whatever. You cannot interview him.

So that wasn’t going to happen at “Cristina.” So I put it down in the contract. So for 21 years, I called my own shots and I’m very happy I did.

Tavis: But you lasted for 21 years with that kind of, from time to time, tete-a-tete with the powers that be and, again, back to your being a Latina, how did you navigate that?

Saralegui: Well, I’m sure that that’s one of the reasons I got in trouble so often with my network is because it’s a bad example. Nobody else in my network, no man, no woman, nobody, had that by contract, only me. And I still had it when I did my last show, and still no man has that in Univision.

So I think that that was a point of contention and I’m very hardheaded. I have a very strong character and I wasn’t going to give that up, which is what my book is about. My book is about empowering not just women, but men because they don’t know how much they’re worth, their value.

And I always knew what I was worth, what I could do, what I could not do. I think that I have a genetic problem with lying [laugh]. I just can’t lie. I get in trouble with my husband because of that. He wishes that I wasn’t so sincere, but I am. So I figured, if I didn’t put that down, I wasn’t going to get it, and I got it and I’m happy.

Tavis: What do you think is the worth and value of what you were able to accomplish content-wise because you had that control?

Saralegui: Well, it was very iffy at the beginning because they – by they, I mean my network and different departments – would say things like, “I don’t know if this show is going to work because everybody knows that Latinos don’t like to talk about their private things, least of all in television.” And I said they will.

Then we found out after one year on the air that we were number one by then. I found out that Latinos didn’t have a place to say what was wrong in their lives or complain, and we gave them that forum. When we gave them that forum, it took off like a champagne bottle. Oh, the cork went to the – and they loved talking about anything.

I mean, my kid is in drugs and I would say, well, my kid did this and that and that, and we would share. I’m a firm believer not only in the truth, but in sharing and there I shared a lot of things about my kids, about my life, that are not very pretty. And you don’t see a lot, you know, of celebrities sharing stuff like that. I don’t mind.

Tavis: Speaking of your children, you were pretty transparent about a condition that your son was wrestling with. Tell me about that.

Saralegui: Well, we always liked to say when Mark and I got married that we were a his, mine and ours marriage because I had a daughter, he had a daughter, and then we had a baby together. Well, this was our golden baby together. And when he was like 19, he tried to kill himself. I mean, that kid was perfect. We had no clue that there was anything wrong with his life.

And all of a sudden, we’re like in a big event. I was giving my speech and my husband is purple and I’m going, “I wonder what I did wrong. The guy’s like this.” We’re in the car and he tells me Jon Marcos tried to kill himself. I said, “What Jon Marcos? My son?” Yes. So it was horrible. I have no words.

That night, we had to take all the presidents of companies that were down in Miami with their wives to a Cuban party and teach him how to dance Salsa. I went and I taught him how to dance Salsa. My son, what he did is that he drove himself to the local hospital to the psychiatric floor and he signed himself in. He was 19. So he stayed.

I went like a lunatic the next morning. The door wasn’t even metal. It was metal so the loonies would not escape. And I knocked and I said, “I’m Cristina. My kid is locked up in here. He’s a minor and I want him out.” And they told me he’s not a minor. He’s 19. Minors are under 18.

And then a lady saw my state and told me, “You know what? Maybe this is the best thing that is ever going to happen to him.” They didn’t know he was bipolar then and neither did I, but he was in a car trying to throw himself off the fifth floor of a parking lot. I mean, Tavis, come on.

Then it was a long time that we didn’t know what to do with him, where to put him, you know, what he had. It was 10 years that I did “The Cristina Show” with my son going from hospital to hospital. He ended up two years in Boston and McLean which is in Harvard. They’re the experts for mental illness in young people.

And I would go do my show and dance with the stars and do my jokes and then I would go home, go to his bed, get his t-shirt that I would tell the nanny, “Don’t wash this” because it still smelled like him. And I would cry all night with his t-shirt smelling it until Marcos, my husband, would come and tell me, “Babe, let’s go to our room. Come on, I’m lonely. Come with me.” And like that, I did that show for 10 years.

Tavis: As you look back on that, how did you get through that? Are you a person of faith? Are you – what did you pull from or draw upon to get you through that period?

Saralegui: Well, I am a Cuban mother and you do not let your cubs get into trouble without you trying to help them all the way. So I wasn’t going to leave Jon Marcos, you know, off to his own devices trying to kill himself, you know.

So I figured it was my responsibility and also I am the sole income person in my family. My husband is my manager. My parents were then alive and I was responsible for them as well. So I figured, hey, man, it’s my job. I got to do it, so I did it. I’m very responsible.

I am not a person of faith. I’m a Catholic. I was brought up Catholic, but I’m not a church-going sort of girl. I’m very spiritual. I pray every night. I believe in heaven and hell, but I’m not a person that goes to church like every Sunday. So that wasn’t the way I thought about it. I thought about it like he’s my kid, he’s our baby together, and he’s going to get out of this.

You know what? He’s in my house now. He’s driving again. And the other day, he told me, “Ma? I think I want to go back to college.” So I have no words to thank the universe for everything that happened to us. And in life, the bigger the pain, the more you hurt, the biggest the lesson you’re learning, so pay attention.

Tavis: There are a lot of Catholics who have been disaffected – I’m not saying you were – but a lot of Catholics who have been disaffected for years are being turned on, re-energized and rethinking their faith because of this new Pope, relatively new Pope. Your thoughts about him? Are you following it? Are you watching him?

Saralegui: Oh, yeah, yeah. He’s a very good Pope. We have had the good, the bad and the ugly [laugh] throughout history.

Tavis: Every faith tradition does, yeah [laugh].

Saralegui: He hasn’t poisoned anybody yet that I know of, and I think that he is a good man. And if you’re not a good man to start with, you cannot be a good Pope. You know, when you’re famous, that big and you have that much responsibility, it’s very hard to remain with your feet on the ground. I think he has. That guys wears tennis shoes like I do and he goes in a bus to work. He’s Argentinian and he’s a great guy.

Tavis: I wonder with all the success that you have had, 21 years of being number one in your lane, whether or not you think in some ways, given the explosion now of Latino, Hispanic talent, in this country and given the way that we’re rethinking what this consumer base means, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong reasons, I wonder whether or not you think in some ways you were ahead of your time.

I only ask that because who was here the other day, the singer from Miami? I’m blanking on this.

Saralegui: Jon Secada?

Tavis: Jon Secada. Thank you.

Saralegui: I saw him.

Tavis: You saw him on the show here?

Saralegui: Yeah. He’s a friend.

Tavis: Great conversation. He was just here and we had this same conversation about whether he felt a little ahead of his time. You know, he had a lot of hits, but there’s an interest now in your community that didn’t seem to exist 21 years ago. So do you think you were ahead of your time?

Saralegui: I’ve always been ahead of my time [laugh].

Tavis: High five. That was good [laugh]. I like that, I like that.

Saralegui: Always. But you know what? It’s been beneficial and I’ve reaped a lot of benefits from that, so I ain’t complaining. Now the most interesting thing is that I’d never had to do focus groups because I traveled all over the United States as editor in chief of Latin American Cosmopolitan and I know a lot of people. When I started, Miami was all Cuban. New York was all Dominican and Puerto Rican. Texas…

Tavis: L.A., yeah, Texas…

Saralegui: L.A. was all Mexican, not any more.

Tavis: That’s right, that’s true.

Saralegui: Not anymore. Now you have a lot of Central Americans.

Tavis: That is true.

Saralegui: Texas had a lot of Mexicans that were from the United States. When a Texan Mexican meets an L.A. Mexican, he goes, “What is he?” So, you know, I knew all of that because I had experienced that, which saved my life. Because it taught me to speak in a Spanish that’s really not spoken anywhere and the magazine was great for that because it circulated in 23 Latin American countries, our countries of origin.

So they have very different vocabulary words in every country, so I learned that vocabulary so I could use it in TV when the time came and that saved my life.

Tavis: See, I think one of the mistakes that we make, to your brilliant point now, Cristina, one of the mistakes that we make is that we group all Spanish speakers in one category and I think we do ourselves a disservice to do that.

Saralegui: That is a huge mistake, a huge mistake because they are very different not only in the Spanish-speaking ways in the words they use, but in the way they see the Catholic Church or the Christian Church and how completely open they are or not. In other words, they’re very different and I’ll give you an example.

It’s like an American, a person from Great Britain, a person from Canada, a person from South Africa. I mean, they all speak English, but they couldn’t be any more different. And that’s what happens with us, and you have to know the differences.

Tavis: So what’s your – back to the point I raised a moment ago. What’s your sense, since you know these communities better than anybody, certainly as well as anybody, what’s your sense of the way that Madison Avenue – we’ll start with that because I want to come to our body politic in just a second.

So we’ll break this down. What’s your assessment of the way that Madison Avenue is regarding, disregarding – you tell me – this community?

Saralegui: I think they’ve always been wrong. But what just freaks me out is that, the older I get, the more wrong they seem to be. They just don’t get it. They actually get you in a room full of experts and they tell you, you know what?

This is how we’re going to do your next campaign for this product that I’ve been doing a lot of advertising throughout my career. And then they put a person jumping in a pool. Water? I’m going that’s got nothing to do with my people, you know.

They say, “What would you do?” I say, “Well, I would put a cut-out of me in a grocery store, you know, and I would have the cut-out talk to the kid.” Really? Seriously? They did that ad and they sold water. We sold more water than the American counterpart of the same ad. You have to know your people. They don’t.

Tavis: So that’s Madison Avenue. The obvious question, your sense of the political clout that this community is starting to have. They did not turn out in huge numbers in the midterm elections. Neither did my community and I predicted that a few weeks ahead of time, that they’re not inspired to turn out and vote this time.

Black unemployment is double, triple the national average. The Hispanic community can’t even get one of its major issues on the table. Meaningful immigration reform. Why are they inspired to turn out to vote anyway?

But that’s neither here nor there at this point. The question I’m asking now is how you view the way that the body politic is viewing or not viewing this growing political clout in your community.

Saralegui: Well, they feel like they’re going to lose their jobs to the Latinos that are coming in. They think that there’s a huge immigration problem and they don’t understand what the immigration problem really is. I do because they found a lot of Taliban-like books in the border. So a lot of people that we don’t want in the United States, guess where they’re coming in from, okay?

So the problem, I don’t think, is the Mexicans come in. I mean, for heaven’s sake, this country was Mexico before it became the United States. And you know what? You just have to have patience. And when you say your people and my people, your people and my people are very, very married to each other and you have no clue how much alike we are.

Tavis: Oh, I do. Trust me [laugh]. I’ve come to figure that out. Is it your sense that, in the short term or in the long term, that we are going to have meaningful immigration reform, whatever that is these days?

Saralegui: Yes, I think so, but I don’t think it belongs – that duty does not belong to any party. It belongs to all of us that are living here, okay? This is a country made by immigrants and for immigrants and the only people that lived here before were the American Indians. That’s it. That’s the only Americans that there are. So I think that eventually everybody’s going to understand it.

But let me tell you how. They’re going to understand it through merengue, salsa, making love, the food. That’s how it’s going to happen. Their neighbors marrying the neighbors and people having trouble in their neighborhoods and everybody pulling together to fix it. That’s how it’s going to happen.

Tavis: So one of the consequences of all that that you’ve just laid out is that this particular community, your community or certainly members of your community, believe that assimilation is the answer.

And at times – not always the case, but you know this better than I do that times assimilation – first of all, assimilation and acculturation are two different things. Acculturation one thing, assimilation another. How do you not make acculturation the enemy of assimilation?

Saralegui: Okay. I’m going to answer by saying that what now you call my community was not so before. It was the Puerto Ricans fighting the Cubans, the Cubans fighting the Argentinians. Divide and win. So what happened is that nobody wanted a huge voting bloc, so they divided the Latinos from every country of origin, but now we’re not divided anymore.

We’re all together and now the Cubans are no longer just in Miami. We’re all together everywhere. You see what I mean? So what do you call that? You call that acculturation or do you call that now we’re all together? We’re a big voting bloc.

Tavis: How do you hold onto that part of your culture that is meaningful and not push that aside or poo-poo that because “I am American now”?

Saralegui: Because America has changed, because America is no longer white, because America is no longer English-speaking only and because we’re all in this together. And the day that America fails, we all fail, all of us.

Tavis: What have you learned – you write about this in the book as well. What have you learned about how to be – you talk about success in career and, to some degree, success in life. We have not talked specifically about what you’ve learned about how to be successful at relationships. Tell me something about that.

Saralegui: Well, I think that, for example, nowadays girls get married for reasons like, oh, he’s so cute, he dances so well, I love him, he’s got ripped abs. You know what? I see marriage as a journey, okay? And if you want a marriage that lasts the whole trip of life because getting there is not important. The trip is what’s important.

My husband and I have been married for 31 years. We have three grandchildren and he’s 11 years younger than I am and he’s a musician from Miami Sound Machine, the conga. Let’s do the conga. He went on that tour.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Saralegui: I was a print journalist and editor in chief. Everybody was against us. Don’t marry him. But you know what I saw? I saw the eyes of his soul and I told him, “Babe, what do you expect from me at the end of the road?” And he told me, “Well, I want a big long table, you know, full of kids and grandkids and your parents and my grandma and all of us together. We’re very much a family-oriented people. And that’s what I want from us.”

And the last Thanksgiving, Tavis, I told him, “Mark, look around you. What do you see?” He told me, “I see what we wanted and it’s here now.” You know what? It’s important that you know where you’re going first. A lot of people know what they don’t want out of life, but they don’t know what it is they want. They don’t know how much they’re worth. They don’t know what they like.

I tell my daughter this all the time. She’s a banker. I said, “If you’re so unhappy, you have to know what you want.” Then you have to make sure that that person you – I don’t care if you’re gay or straight. I’m very liberal – that person that, you know, have your life with is going in the same direction you’re going, that has the same dreams that you have. Because that’s the only way you’re going to end up in the same place, hon.

Tavis: Let me get real personal now. You mentioned earlier that your husband is your manager, has been for a long time now, and you mentioned that you are the primary breadwinner in that family because you’re the talent here. Back at that word “talent” again where this conversation started.

Saralegui: Thanks a lot.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. You’re the talent. How did you get comfortable and how did your husband get comfortable because so many of us men, we men think that somehow our masculinity is tied to our earning potential, how did you make that work in that relationship?

Saralegui: Well, two things. Number one, my husband is very sure assured, but he’s a very great man, and I saw that when I met him, and he’s one of the most assured of himself man that I have ever met and when you’re in the media, you meet a lot of men.

And when I met him, I thought, “This guy is so sure of himself.” The first time, he told me, “If you and I make love,” then he says, “No, when you and I make love,” I said this one is for me. I remember I did my toenails in red that night. I said this guy is for me.

How do handle that? Very simple. I was sitting at a big desk doing magazine. I was the editor in chief of two magazines that went all over Latin America. Marcos came over and told me, you know what? You’re a lot smarter than that. He saw things in me that I never saw in me.

And then he said, you know what? You have to leave here. You’re too comfortable here. You can come work here in your PJs. So why don’t we do TV? And because of him, I wanted to do TV. Not only that, but he told me, if you don’t get at least this amount of money when you go to negotiate, don’t come back home [laugh]. So this man made me wealthy, rich and very happy.

Tavis: Yeah. Is that your way of saying that women can have it all?

Saralegui: Yeah, but not at the same time. You have to know what you want and you have to time it, okay? Now what my advice, what I did, because there is just my advice. That’s not the Bible.

What I did is that every time for me having a family was the most important thing in the world and kids. So what I did is that, every time there was a problem between the kid and the job, I always picked the kid. In other words, the family always comes first to me.

And I’ll give you an example. There’s a lot of men, especially Latin men, they don’t even know what the pediatrician’s phone number is. You know what? That’s why I love my husband because he takes the kids to the pediatricians.

He’s a Mr. Mom. He packs the bags. He is a macho in the good sense of the word, unlike my dad. I had nine credits to go in college and my dad told me, you know what? You can’t finish. I got to take you out of college. I said, “What?”

He says, “You got to come out of college. You got to stop going because you know what? I’m don’t have enough money to send you and your brother to college. And as a Latin man, my duty is to send your brother to college because you are going to get husbands to support you.” Little did my father know I was going to end up supporting him, okay? So he got me out of college. I never graduated, never.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds. Before I get a bunch of emails that I don’t have time to respond, I’m going to let you answer this question now. Does your husband have any single brothers?

Saralegui: All my girlfriends ask me that [laugh].

Tavis: I could feel that question coming [laugh]. And the answer is?

Saralegui: No.

Tavis: Okay. So you ain’t got to write me. Cristina just told you this. Don’t ask me…

Saralegui: No.

Tavis: Can you forward this to Cristina for me? Cristina Saralegui has a new book out. It’s called “Rise Up and Shine!: My Secrets for Success in Career, Relationships and Life,” from a woman who I’ve admired from afar for many years because of her entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m delighted to have had her as a guest on this program tonight. Cristina, all the best to you and your family.

Saralegui: Thank you very much.

Tavis: It’s good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 19, 2014 at 1:49 am